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Democratic Meltdown

(To read other articles in our Arts-Policy Nexus series click here.)

Marshall Reese and Nora Ligorano collaborate as the artistic duo LigoranoReese. In the coming three weeks, the Arts-Policy Blog will be featuring three of the artists' works: The State of Things, Main Street Meltdown, and Morning in America. 

By Marshall Reese 

In this immaterial age, the medium of ice seems like the perfect material for sculpting the impact of seemingly invisible, yet strongly felt forces at the beginning of the 21st century. Embracing this realization, Nora Ligorano and I create ice sculptures, which we call “temporary monuments.” We believe that the impact of politics cannot be divorced from culture or art any more than the impact of art or culture can be divorced from politics.  Engaging the public through creative means lies at the heart of our work. We attempt to develop public discourse about civic and socio-political issues­ – inviting the cosmopolitan viewer to communicate, provoke conversation, engage the public, and question the world in which we live.

We install site-specific giant ice sculptures on location during national events in the United States, imbuing the sculptures with the political theater of the moment. In 2008, we unveiled large ice sculptures of the word “Democracy” at the political conventions in Denver and St. Paul. On the 79th anniversary of the Great Depression, we erected an ice sculpture of the word “Economy” in front of the New York State Supreme Court in Foley Square. And, in 2012, we installed the word “Middle Class” at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions in Tampa and Charlotte, respectively.

Creating ice sculptures seems like a simple process; truck the ice in, set it up, watch it melt away. In actuality, the process is quite complex. When created for a specific event, ice sculptures have a monumental quality, acting as a commemorative monument tinged with a touch of despair as they disappear and vanish into thin air.

Ice sculptures are expansive conceptual structures that change over time, becoming both physical and virtual stages for public interaction. The familiarity and materiality of ice creates an accessible space for the viewer to engage the works of art. People want to approach the sculptures. They touch them with their fingers. They yearn to sense the bodily shift from solid to liquid, as if the sculptures themselves were succumbing to a fever’s heat.  They know that the strong, beautifully frozen presence they witness is also elusive and fragile; within hours, the sculptures totally disappear. Virtually, the Internet acts as a forum that invites public input and interaction with the documentary lifecycle of the sculpture: viewers are videotaped, their comments recorded, and then featured in short video segments on a website dedicated to the project.

Deteriorating and melting to bits, these temporary monuments are not meant to advertise permanence. In 2008, after eight years of the Bush Administration, the Patriot Act, Guantanamo, and the War on Terror, the prospects for democracy were hardly positive— thus the perfect time for a “Democracy” ice sculpture to disappear. That same year, as Lehman Brothers teetered on the brink of insolvency, an ice sculpture of the word “Economy” in lower Manhattan drastically captured the moment of decay with crystalline clarity.

Our objective as artists is to breakdown and breakthrough accepted interpretations and responses. One may suspect that current events indicate certain political trends, but seeing a word like “Democracy” literally disappearing before one’s eyes transform those suspicions into tangible experiences. 

The State of Things

Provisions Library commissioned us to be part of BrushFire, a series of public interventions in the American heartland during the presidential campaign of 2008.  In Denver, that work was installed in front of the contemporary art museum during the Democratic Convention there and lasted throughout the night.

Two days later, The State of Things was unveiled on the grounds of the state capital in St. Paul, during the Republican Convention. People actually consumed the sculpture, chipping off pieces from the work to eat. The sculpture lasted just five hours. The dismantling of democracy – its actual consumption by the public – seemed disturbing, emblematic of what had transpired in the country (and the world) during the previous eight years, foreshadowing the global Occupy movement.

Main Street Meltdown

On the 79th anniversary of the Great Depression, during the 2008 elections, we staged Main Street Meltdown at Foley Square on the fringes of Wall Street.  The installation drew public and media attention, asking the viewer to ponder the significance of melting the word “economy” at a time when major banking institutions around the world were weathering a financial crisis that still seems far from over.

Morning In America

The title of this work is taken from Ronald Reagan’s 1984 presidential campaign, which ushered in a new era of conservatism. His administrations and philosophy of supply side economics generated most of the economic problems facing the world now  – deindustrialization, deregulation, stagnation of incomes and increased disparity of wealth.

Taken as a whole, these monuments are perfect markers for the opening decades of this century, not just in America but also around the world - first, democracy is broken, then the economy is ruined, now the middle class is disappearing.

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(Photo courtesy of Meltedaway

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